Zambia national team players celebrate their victory at the end of the 2012 African Cup of Nations Final, Zambia Vs Ivory Coast in Libreville, Gabon on February 12, 2012.

Tragedy to glory: Remembering Zambia’s touching AFCON triumph

Every title-winning side has a unique story surrounding its triumph and it was no different for Zambia’s Africa Cup of Nations heroes who claimed a maiden continental crown in 2012.

For the southern African side, AFCON success could not have been more opportune as it seemed like the stars aligned for the Chipolopolo, who had largely plummeted into obscurity since the mid-1990s.

Indeed, it was not lost on anyone that the finals were co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, the mention of the latter especially bringing about extra meaning for every Zambian.

It was April 1993 when 18 players from that talented iteration perished when a military aircraft carrying the side to a World Cup qualifying clash in Senegal crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after a second refuelling stop in Libreville, Gabon, killing all 30 passengers on board.

Then-PSV Eindhoven forward and Zambia’s superstar Kalusha Bwalya was not on that flight as he was flying to West Africa from the Netherlands, so the fairy-tale journey 19 years later understandably meant a whole lot to the 1988 African Footballer of the Year.

Bwalya had led a newly-assembled side to a runners-up spot at AFCON 1994, losing 2-1 to Nigeria’s Golden Generation, and narrowly missed out on a World Cup ticket. Truly, the team’s success almost two decades later in Libreville was appropriate.

Make no mistake, the Zambia side that triumphed in 2012 were far from tournament favourites. Even though the continent’s heavyweights like Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria failed to qualify, Zambia were 10th favourites and were ranked 71st by FIFA before the competition commenced.

Indeed, they were given little chance of succeeding.

However, despite the odds being stacked against them, there was a burning desire to thrive at the finals.

“We are going to this tournament to put the souls of our fallen heroes to rest,” Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene said before the tournament.

Having failed to make it past the group stage in five of six finals preceding the 2012 edition, the Copper Bullets faced an uphill task after being pooled with Senegal — the competition’s third favourites — and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea.

But this group were undaunted, evidenced by going unbeaten in Group A, claiming seven points from an available nine. For a nation that had faltered at this stage all but once since reaching the 1994 final, this iteration thrived.

Without a doubt, Christopher Katongo and Emmanuel Mayuka were the protagonists in Zambia’s impressive start, doing all they could in the attacking third, with Rainford Kalaba also flourishing. Katongo would go on to be named player of the tournament.

The nation’s captain netted three times at AFCON 2012, ending level with Mayuka, but what he offered the team outside those goals contributed to that eventual individual honour.

It was Katongo’s through-ball for Kalaba that helped to double the underdogs’ advantage in their opening 2-1 victory over Senegal, eight minutes after Mayuka headed them ahead from close range following a well-worked set-piece.

While it seemed an easy assist, the timing of its execution and decision to ignore the scorer of the opening goal and remain patient for Kalaba’s run demonstrated the captain’s level-headedness.

The aforementioned stars were instrumental to Zambia’s 2-2 draw against Libya, which showcased their battling quality and mentality.

Twice the Copper Bullets fell behind, but they fought back on each occasion to peg back the North African nation.

The second leveller from Katongo, in particular, was a thing of beauty. The skipper was picked out with an audacious overhead kick from which he made no mistake, heading in from six yards.

The celebration that followed was fitting.

With top spot in the group at stake, Zambia and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea faced each other in their final group match, having sealed qualification.

It could have been treated as a dead rubber which it was in theory, but Katongo had other ideas, scoring a brilliant 67th-minute winner.

From a seemingly non-threatening position wide on the left following a throw-in, the skipper chopped in-field, moving laterally in possession. He then beat two Equatoguineans with subtle feints before sending a low drive past Danilo to secure maximum points for Chipolopolo.

This meant Herve Renard’s side avoided tournament favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter-final. The Elephants unsurprisingly swept aside the co-hosts, beating Equatorial Guinea 3-0 in the last eight.

As for Zambia, the reward for beating the tiny West African nation saw them battle Sudan in the first knockout round. It was their most comfortable win at the finals, with Stoppila Sunzu, Katongo and James Chamanga scoring in the 3-0 success over a side that were reduced to 10 men just after the hour mark.

Observers may have scoffed at any pre-tournament prediction tipping the Copper Bullets to make it to the semi-final. Yet here they were, two wins from their Holy Grail. Two victories from sealing an unexpected and tear-jerking triumph.

But they had to overcome Ghana – four-time winners of AFCON and second favourites behind Ivory Coast – and likely Didier Drogba’s Elephants in the decider.

Mayuka may have come up trumps against the Black Stars with a sucker punch effort with 12 minutes of normal time to play – brilliantly curling his shot from the edge of the 18-yard box that went in off the post – but Mweene was the undoubted hero in Bata.

The goalkeeper faced a plethora of shots, including Asamoah Gyan’s eighth-minute penalty, but was up to the mark for 90 minutes.

Perhaps driven by his pre-tournament promise, Mweene had a game to remember and Zambia were only one game away from a poignant win.

The nation’s biggest game since the mid-1990s was to be played at Stade d’Angondje in Libreville, about a kilometre from the location of the unfortunate plane crash in April 1993.

Led by Bwalya, who had become the president of the Zambian FA, the team went to a beach adjacent to the scene of the aeroplane going down to pay their respects. The Zambia legend was filled with belief and attributed their AFCON run to the supernatural.

“It is no coincidence that we are here today, we have worked hard as a team,” said the nation’s greatest player. “However, I am convinced that our dearly departed brothers who lost their lives here 19 years ago have lent us a helping hand.”

They were one game away, but it was not going to be easy. Standing in their way was a star-studded Ivory Coast side captained by Drogba and comprising a strong support cast that included the Toure brothers, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho.

It may have been a forgettable final with quality chances at a premium, but Zambia’s belief never wavered over 120 minutes.

When Drogba blazed a penalty off target with 20 minutes of normal time left, the Copper Bullets’ confidence probably grew substantially. And for good reason, too.

They might have given away two of the competition’s seven spot-kicks but had conceded from neither. They had also prevented an Ivorian side that had won all their games inside 90 minutes from scoring for the first time in the competition.

Another scoreless half-hour followed and it was down to penalties. Still, neither side faltered…. until the 15th penalty.

Mweene – who scored Zambia’s pressure fifth – saved Kolo Toure’s kick. The underdogs were one successful spot-kick away from redemption…or so they thought.

Kalaba blazed over and the almost jubilant Chipolopolo were disappointed. But not for long.

A reluctant and nervous Gervinho missed the target with Ivory Coast’s ninth penalty and it was down to Sunzu to take Zambia to their Holy Grail as they had another bite of the cherry.

The centre-back made no mistake, smashing his kick down the middle past Boubacar Barry. Zambia were African champions against all odds.

Katongo, Mayuka and Kalaba were the protagonists all tournament but it was a centre-back who became the unlikeliest of match-winners for a nation who claimed their first AFCON crown close to the location of their greatest tragedy.

“They found the strength, I don’t know where,” an ecstatic Renard said. “There is something written somewhere. It just felt right but it was not because of me. I don’t know where it came from.”

Midfielder Isaac Chansa ascribed the win to the side’s belief and events from the nation’s saddest hour.

“The 1993 tragedy played its role,” the midfielder said, “We weren’t favourites for the competition or the final, but we believed in ourselves.”

Indeed, destiny smiled on that Zambia side who were largely unfancied before the finals. Of their 23-man squad, 18 plied their trade across Africa with only five foreign-based stars in the team.

Rather than focus on their limitations, they were greater than the sum of their parts and drew strength from a national misfortune to reign supreme on the continent.

Renard’s troops were worthy winners. And it was undoubtedly fitting that Zambia won it in Libreville.

It was written in the stars.

By Seye Omidiora

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